On the road to Rias Baixas and Ribeiro

You might think that after almost 40 years of constant business travel I would relish staying close to my home in calm, uneventful Rioja.

You’re wrong.

In spite of putting up with driving long distances to catch flights, delays, cancellations, lost luggage, unfamiliar beds, strange food, going to bed and getting up at ungodly hours, and coups d’état in South America (no kidding!) I actually enjoyed getting out of Logroño to travel around the world.

So when Gerry Dawes,  long time buddy from both the wine business and Pamplona  asked me to join him and Basilio Izquierdo,  a Rioja winemaker who was responsible for the wines from CVNE for many years, for a quick trip to Galicia to taste wines, I jumped.  I needed to get out of Dodge for a few days.

I left three days after Gerry and Basilio because of a lecture I had to give at the local university, so I had all afternoon and evening on the road to myself to listen to the news, music and just think from the relative safety of a four-lane highway all the way from Logroño to Pontevedra.  Not a single stop light for 750 clicks.

This in itself is a huge improvement over roads in Spain when I arrived in 1971, when going to Galicia, or for that matter, anywhere else in Spain, was an all-day trip on narrow two-lane roads and over snow-covered mountain passes choked with trucks and buses, making passing next to impossible.

To make a long story short, I arrived at the first winery, Gerardo Méndez, in Meaño in Rías Baixas at 8 PM.  After tasting three wines, Do Ferreiro 2008, 2009 and Cepas Vellas 2007 at the winery, and Do Ferreiro 2006 with seafood at dinner I learned that these amazingly elegant, complex wines age beautifully, something that white wine drinkers would be wise to remember.

This message was reinforced the next morning at Palacio de Fefiñanes in Cambados where we tasted a tank sample of 2009, two 2008s, two 2006s including a wine aged for 30 months in a stainless steel tank before bottling, a 2005 aged the same way, a 2003 and a 1999.  These wines totally blew me away, especially the older vintages with their aromas of honey, peach and apricots and their long, elegant, unctuous finish.

Late in the morning we drove to Ribadavia, near Orense, to taste wines from Ribeiro.  Our first stop was at Adega Manuel Formigo in Beade, a colleteiro (‘cosechero’ in Galician).  Manuel prepared a tasting of base wines as well as the finished blends.

While approaching Ribeiro, my mind went back 35 years to the seafood restaurants in Madrid, where cheap, extremely acidic red and white wines from this region were served in small white bowls.  They were totally forgettable.

 It was evident that I had some catching up to do.

Ribeiro whites today are usually blends of treixadura grapes, with some godello, albariño, loureiro, torrontés, albilla and even palomino.  However, treixadura and godello seemed to dominate in the wineries we visited.

These two varieties complement each other very well.  Treixadura is very aromatic, reminding me of licorice, citrus fruit and pineapple, with an undistinguished palate but zingy acidity.  On the other hand, godello isn’t as aromatic but adds depth and length in the mouth.  

Our next stop was to Adega Emilio Rojo, a 15 minute drive up a mountain.  Gerry told me that Emilio was considered the ‘bad boy’ of Ribeiro, and his sense of humor and impish grin seemed to back this up, but the two tank samples of 2009 we tasted were anything but bad.  In spite of not being ready for bottling, both wines showed a herbal, floral nose, vibrant acidity and elegance.

That night we slept in a country inn that was also a winery, Casal de Arman, outside Ribadavia.  We asked the owner to let us taste his wines in tank and they, too, were excellent.

I’m glad I took the time to visit Rías Baixas and Ribeiro.  I was already pretty familiar with Rías, but Ribeiro was a pleasant surprise.  Rías Baixas wines are widely available but Ribeiro takes a little more time to find.  Ask your local wine shop if any are available.  You won’t regret it!

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